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Government orders radio show off the air

(SEAPA/IFEX) - Laotian state authorities abruptly cancelled in late January 2012 the permit of a popular call-in radio program without any public explanation.

"Talk of the News", a program which aired over the Lao National Radio since November 2007, ended its broadcast on 27 January 2012 after it was apparently ordered off the air by the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism of the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

"Talk of the News" program host Ounkeo Souksavan was summoned by the director of Lao National Radio (LNR) who said that he was told that the Ministry had issued a cancellation order for the radio show, according to a 22 February Asia Times online report.

The "Talk of the News", or "Wao Khao" in Lao language, was considered as an achievement in broadening access to information and stimulating citizen feedback and discussion on a wide range of social, economic and environmental issues impacting the country and everyday life.

The call-in program ran between 10 and 11pm from Monday to Friday at FM 103.7 MHZ of the Lao National Radio. It was the only live-broadcast program that enabled the public to phone in and comment on current news and voice their problems. The broadcast reached listeners in the Vientiane city proper and Vientiane province. Those in nearby provinces could listen to the program by satellite broadcast.

Listeners would phone in to air their views on news reports read by Ounkeo at the start of the program. Many callers were encouraged by the anonymity provided by radio to air their views on topics normally considered taboo in Laotian media, including social justice, corruption and land grabbing issues, often involving government officials.

On several occasions, the program even went to the field to interview victims in such disputes. Once, Ounkeo interviewed a delegation of farmers from the Boloven plateau region who complained about the expansion of a Vietnamese coffee plantation with the alleged connivance of the district governor. This particular episode apparently led many Laotians to complain to the National Assembly about similar land grabbing incidents.

While the reasons for the cancellation of the show's broadcast permit were not given, there is no legal basis for the government's action.

Article 44 of the national Constitution protects the "right and freedom of speech, press and assembly", and Lao PDR's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the country ratified in 2009, should protect the program from any such order by the state. Later, however, authorities at the ministry have reportedly approached Ounkeo saying they would allow resumption of the program with a changed format of broadcasting.
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